Glaring bias

While the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to arguably the world’s most well-known person, with little justification, the literature prize went to a hardly known writer, with even less justification. The prize for the Rumania-born German writer Herta Mueller was also a major surprise, as her writing has not had much appeal outside the German-speaking world. Lack of popularity outside one’s language world is in itself no disqualification. But Mueller’s writing would hardly pass muster as Nobel material, especially because better writers were in contention. The Swedish Academy has been known to award the prize to obscure writers, ignoring deserving and eminent ones. Last year’s winner Jean-Marie Le Clezio was an equally unknown French writer. The list of writers who were overlooked by the Nobel committee is also glaring. It includes greats like Tolstoy, Marcel Proust and Kafka.

The Academy has said that Mueller’s work “depicts the landscape of the dispossessed with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose.” She suffered under the Communist regime in Romania in the 1960s and the 1970s and had fled the country for Germany. Her writing portrays corruption and repression in Communist societies. The Swedish Academy has always taken a liking to writings critical of communism, whatever their literary merit. The award for Mueller again shows that it cannot free itself of this obsession, even decades after the collapse of the ideology and its supporting institutions. The awards have also been Euro-centric with much more European writers winning it than those from other continents and cultures. Peter Englund, secretary of the Academy, admitted this when he said that “if you are European, it is easier to relate to European literature.” His predecessor, Horace Engdal, had last year created a controversy by stating that Europe was still the centre of the literary world.

Ideological predilections and other kinds of biases should not influence the choice of winners of the Nobel prize, or of any prize in the public space. Judgment of literature admittedly has a subjective element in it, unlike in the case of discoveries for which the science prizes are given. But cases of misjudgment and bias in the choice of writers for the prize have become very obvious and frequent in recent past. They lower the credibility and prestige of the world’s premier literary prize.

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